Louisa May Alcott was often told as a child that her dark hair and dark eyes came from her Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, who had similar coloring, had learned this from her father, Joseph May, a late 18th-century Boston businessman whose Portuguese Jewish ancestors immigrated to Sussex, England, just before 1500.
The Mays spent more than a century in England, becoming prosperous enough to cross the Atlantic during the Great Migration. Around 1640, the Mays — also spelled Mayes, Maies and Maize — settled in Massachusetts, where one of their descendants was the quintessentially Yankee author of “Little Women.”
Alcott never wrote about her Jewish heritage, nor did she visit her ancestral homeland of Portugal, as I discovered while researching “Marmee & Louisa,” a dual biography of the author and her mother. As her first cousin and a great-niece of her mother, I was eager to learn more about the family’s past, so in October 2012 my family traveled to Portugal. My late aunt, Charlotte May Wilson, whose grandmother was Louisa’s closest first cousin, told me that the Jewish ancestry was a topic of pride in the family. The first person we encountered in Lisbon, the cabdriver who picked us up at the airport and took us to our hotel, offered us an impromptu history lesson on Portugal’s Jews.
“King Manuel I expelled the Jews because his second wife,” Princess Isabella of Spain, “demanded it.” The king found the Jews useful because they helped finance his government. But in 1496, under pressure from his anti-Semitic in-laws, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Manuel issued a decree expelling all Jews who did not convert to Christianity. Jews who could not leave immediately were forced to convert and to assume new names, often taken from nature, such as “pear tree” (Pereira), “olive tree” (Oliveira) or a month of the year (Maio, for May).